Illuminated River: lighting up London’s bridges with skill and charm

Rowan Moore
·6 min read

Light, rather obviously, is the thing that allows us to see shapes and colours. Which makes it somewhat fundamental to architecture: there wouldn’t be much point, without it, to architects troubling themselves with form and decoration. It also varies in tone, intensity, direction, contrast and colour, which means that the solid stuff that it illuminates changes with it. Yet it is oddly neglected in discussions of architectural beauty, especially in its artificial versions. The planning system has little to say about it. Planners might fret about window details and facing materials but there’s not much they can do if light blazes from a glass office block or developers bathe their apartment towers in lurid pink.

Streets and buildings are usually illuminated with little reference to designers, even though their lighting can profoundly change the perception and experience of a city, not to mention its safety and its environmental performance. Good lighting is also a fairly cheap way of improving the public realm, compared with creating buildings and parks and new squares. Illuminated River, an ambitious plan to transform the lighting of London’s Thames bridges for a minimum of 10 years, created by the New York-based artist Leo Villareal with the British architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, shows how it can be done.

The lights respond to the movement of the ‘living breathing thing’ that is the river, and ‘mirror the activity around it’

The paradoxical invisibility of light in architectural discourse has allowed this £31m project to become reality, if not exactly easily, with comparatively little fuss: other large-scale visions – a “floating park” proposed in 2011, a certain garden bridge – have foundered on logistical and political complexities. But four of Illuminated River’s schemes, from London Bridge to the Millennium Bridge, were switched on in July 2019. Five more, from Blackfriars to Lambeth, will light up later this month. A further five, upstream from Lambeth, are on hold for now, because the funders who might support them are facing unprecedented demands from Covid-hit cultural institutions.

The five new ones are on the stretch that runs through the political and cultural centres of the capital, the bit most likely to say “London” to tourists and visitors, the most populated at night, running from St Paul’s Cathedral to the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre to the Houses of Parliament. Their palettes, to be seen every evening from dusk to 2am, run some gamuts: Blackfriars is in a fuchsia-to-marigold range; Waterloo has a fast-changing rainbow strip along each of its balustrades and sunset washes on its undersides. The Golden Jubilee Bridges, which are a pair of walkways attached to either flank of Hungerford Railway Bridge, are mostly white. Westminster, according to an obscure yet not very old tradition, has to be green, like the seats in the House of Commons, so in Villareal’s scheme goes through a mint/pistachio/malachite/go-signal spectrum. Lambeth is meant to be red, like the seats in the House of Lords, but now also veers into purple.

At least, these were the hues I saw during a temporary and preliminary switch-on last month. There may be others, as the lights are always shifting, according to patterns set by Villareal. These, he says, respond to the movement of the “living breathing thing” that is the river, and “mirror the activity around it” – the rise and fall of tides, people and vehicles on the bridges. The white lights on the balustrades of the Golden Jubilee walkways, for example, pulse with horizontal rhythms, which complement the movements of trains behind them. Sometimes the colours on the bridges change fast, sometimes slowly, sometimes a whole bridge at a time, sometimes arch-by-arch. The overall scheme will also change when the pandemic allows Villareal to come to London: it’s his usual practice, so far denied on this phase of the project by Covid, to tweak and tune his designs on site.

There are some hazards here. The moving colours might have been a bit lava lamp, a bit early-00s screensaver, a bit Greek island tourist disco circa 1977. The project has also been described from its inception by the philanthropists Jacob and Hannah Rothschild, before Villareal was appointed through a design competition, as an “artwork”, sometimes as “the longest public art commission in the world”. But the Thames and its bridges were already majestic, and inspiring to artists such as Turner and Monet and Whistler, so it was questionable whether they needed another layer of artistic interpretation laid on top of them. If the Kinks could celebrate Waterloo Sunset as it was, who needs some confected meteorology as well?

What the bridges did require was some love and care to bring out the best in them, rather than the ad hoc and sometimes crude lighting arrangements that had grown up over the years, and in practice this is what Illuminated River has achieved. Villareal professes a desire to “reveal more of the beauty that’s there”, which means bringing out the intricate structures on the undersides of the arches, or subtly emphasising the distributions of weight across iron and stone. Most of the time, it works.

An exception is Waterloo Bridge, where it proved technically impossible to wash its flanks as planned with light. The rainbow strips they installed instead are strident, obscuring what is the handsomest structure on this stretch, and drowning the subtler colours projected on the underneath. Hopefully this is something that can be tuned. Otherwise, Villareal gets the balance right: you can look at his lights and enjoy the show, if you want to, or experience them as background to the human-natural wonder that is the Thames.

You also get the feeling that someone has bothered. If much of the river is subjected to crapulous anarchy – eruptions of money-laundering skyscrapers, the currently inactive retail swamp that has engulfed the South Bank Centre – here are works of evident skill and charm, intelligently using software and techniques (low-energy LED lighting, for example) that have only quite recently become available.

This is where other public spaces could learn, to which end Illuminated River’s director, Sarah Gaventa, has with the thinktank Centre for London initiated a report calling for improved lighting across the capital. The Illuminated River Foundation is also making the expertise gained through its project freely available. Other towns and cities, obviously, could benefit. They won’t all need something so intricate and bespoke as Illuminated River, but it does show how light fittings, well deployed, can lift the spirits.